“General Assembly” – two little words that evoke a huge array of thoughts in my mind. I’m going to choose to focus on the positive ones as I write these words.
I’ve attended every GA since becoming a member of the VOW Board, and I think that makes six of them so far. They tend to blur together in my memory, with occasional milestone moments that remain fairly vivid. This most recent GA was the first one at which I testified before a committee, and that’s the experience I want to share with you.
First, a brief explanation of how that system works: Overtures which have been sent to GA are first parceled out among a number of committees for debate and action. The action of the committee is later presented to the entire Assembly, which may or may not accept the Committee’s recommendation. Anyone wishing to testify before a GA Committee must sign up in advance on sheets of paper posted on a bulletin board. One also must indicate whether the testimony will be in favor of or opposed to the overture being addressed. Typically, each person testifying is allowed a maximum of three minutes, so it is critical to plan very carefully how best to utilize those precious 180 seconds. Moreover, if the issue is particularly controversial and there are a large number of individuals wishing to testify, the Committee Chair has the power to reduce the time limit. Sometimes that decision is made on the spur of the moment, so it is very important to be prepared with a shorter version of one’s testimony, just in case it is needed.
Actually, there were two issues on which I testified – each before a different committee.
In the first case, my testimony addressed just one aspect of a motion asking for dialogue among individuals of different faiths (which, in general, is a fine idea). My objection was to the language in one of the specific recommendations, and my main point was that it cannot be correct to declare that Christians, Jews and Muslims “all worship the same God”, because of the fact that we Christians worship the Triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Clearly, those other two religious systems do not worship the Triune God. Although we are called to respect all human beings as if each one is a child of God (since we cannot know otherwise in any particular case), we certainly are not called to respect their religious beliefs when those beliefs are leading them away from the one true (Triune) God. For us to affirm their religion is for us to deny the fact that there is only one true God and that He is the Triune God. Thankfully, there was some improvement made in the wording of the final version of the overture before it eventually was approved by the Assembly.
In the second case, I was testifying against approval of an overture that came (I’m sorry to say) from my own Baltimore Presbytery. The overture sought to redefine marriage so that it could include same-gender couplings. I carefully wrote out my testimony, conscious of the need to say what I needed to say with as few words as possible. I edited and then edited some more, removing a word here substituting a shorter word there. And then I timed myself as I read through it. Five minutes! Back to the word processor. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to pare it down – not even to four minutes. Enter my colleagues on the VOW support team. I handed off my draft to Brittany Dowdy, the young seminarian who is serving as an Intern on our VOW Board. Brittany, who says she “loves words” and has special gifts for working with words, was able to get my testimony down to 3½ minutes. Still too long. Aargh!
Enter another member of the VOW network support team: Diana Lantz, Navy Chaplain and gifted speaker and writer. The two of them poured over my testimony. Not only did they get it down to three minutes, but they did so even while adding in a much-needed reference to Scripture.
I made my way to the Committee’s meeting room at the time designated for open hearings. All those who had signed up to testify were lined up along the wall in alternating order, those defending the overture alternating with those opposing it. My turn came. I spoke as fast as I could while making sure I was speaking slowly enough to give the listeners time to take in my words. I made my main point, which is that marriage is not whatever we choose to declare it to be. Rather it is what God defined it to be from the very beginning of creation. For us, no matter how lovingly-motivated we may be toward those who struggle with homosexual attractions, to declare such a coupling to be a “marriage” would not make it so. I pointed out that there just is no way, when one looks at Scripture in all its totality, to conclude that God approves of homosexual behavior. I shared my conviction that the Christ-like thing to do is to continue to speak the truth in love, and not to twist and tweak it to make others comfortable with sin. The time-keeper’s yellow warning flag went up, and I knew I had to omit my second-to-last sentence. But I was able to end with my plea that, “Despite the fact that this overture came from my own presbytery, I am pleading with you to disapprove it.”
Then I sat down and listened to others testify. Many of those who argued in favor of that overture were people I recognized. They manage to show up at every GA, and they are determined to be satisfied with nothing less than the church’s official declaration of approval for their homosexual behavior. I listened as others testified in opposition to the amendment, many of them making the same points that I had made, others emphasizing the fact that this issue is not at all about “civil rights” and still others pointing out the damage that would be done to our denomination (including loss of clergy and of entire congregations) by the approval such an overture as this.
I am happy to report that the committee members not only voted to disapprove that overture, but they did so by a 3 to 1 majority. To no one’s surprise, however, the Assembly refused to accept the committee’s recommendation and reopened the debate on the plenary floor. Although I am happy to say that the entire Assembly also voted to disapprove the overture, I am sorry to report that it was by only a very slim margin.
My nine days in San Jose were long days filled with hard work, but that work was interspersed with the joyous fellowship that always transpires when the members of our VOW Board and GA Support Team are together. Over all these years of observing the polity of the PC(USA), I have learned that it is those who have voice and vote who are able to shape the way our denomination presents itself to the culture that surrounds us. Over the years the various GA’s have blurred together in my memory. However, two things will make the 218th General Assembly stand out in my mind for decades to come: First, the experience of testifying before GA Committees. The second thing I always will remember is what happened the day after I returned from San Jose. I arrived home on a Saturday evening, and that very next Sunday morning I stood before the congregation of my home church and had the tremendous privilege of being ordained to the Office of Elder. Each of the Elders in our congregation is given a name badge to wear (“Marcia Slentz-Whalen, Elder”). I can say in all honestly that I have never worn any accessory that has felt weightier than that name badge. I pray that God will use me and the voice and vote that are bestowed along with that special Office in ways that help lead to the Renewal of the PC(USA) and that honor and glorify Him.